Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey vaguely admitted to dressing up in blackface while at Auburn University in 1967.
Then, nothing really happened.
The University issued an equally vague statement in which it didn’t mention the governor by name and claimed that even though racial caricature was and is wrong, there was a time when it was tolerated.
A professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, Wayne Flynt, stepped up to excuse the racist actions of the sitting governor.
No one seriously thought the governor would resign. And now everyone can just move on — right?
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Something comes to light about Auburn’s long-standing inability to condemn racial inequality, Auburn then continues its tradition of not condemning racial inequality, the waters settle and the University hopes no one else looks in their archives. This isn’t even the first time this year that a sitting governor has been found in some kind of past racially insensitive costume at Auburn.
In February, photos of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee dressed as a Confederate soldier were found in a 1980 Glomerata. Again, the University’s response to this incident didn’t include any direct reference to the governor; Auburn merely claimed it is dedicated to “preparing students for life and leadership in a multicultural world.”
As a university with a history that extends through the Confederacy, it’s understandable for Auburn to have made mistakes in the past. For instance, Old Main, the precursor to Samford Hall, was used as a Confederate hospital, and the University’s campus was used as a training ground for Confederate soldiers.
It is, however, inexcusable to overlook, excuse, deny or embrace those mistakes under the guise of “having come a long way.” The University can’t say it regrets its role in the Confederacy while refusing to remove the cannon lathe on Samford Lawn, which was donated to Auburn University in 1952 to commemorate its contribution to the Confederate cause.
Similarly, the University can’t claim it regrets its past without clearly condemning its racist graduates and taking responsibility for the culture of oppression and humiliation that it fostered.
The University’s statement about Ivey’s racist performance said that this incident took place at “a time at Auburn, and in this nation generally, when racial caricature was tolerated.” It goes on to say that this was and is wrong and that Auburn is working to ensure an environment that is inclusive and equitable.
Admittedly, this statement is true, but it is also misleading. Saying that racial caricuture “was tolerated” makes the statement passive. It allows the University to pretend they were merely following a trend in American behavior.
In fact, Auburn University — or at least some of its white students and administrators — actively tolerated racist caricature.
Many white students and administrators tolerated Confederate flags being hung by the Kappa Alpha Order until 2001. They tolerated students wearing Confederate uniforms until 2010.
Today, they continue to tolerate a massive disparity in racial diversity on campus. They continue to tolerate Greek organizations with little to no racial inclusion.
Passivity is not an excuse. Actions are not tolerated — people tolerate them.
The other excuse that has been raised for Ivey is that she is merely a product of her time.
Flynt articulated that argument and said that people should be forgiven for their racist actions because of the prevalent culture in Alabama during the 1960s.
“If we go back and dredge up any stupid thing we did, there’s nobody going to pass the muster of political correctness,” Flynt told AL.com.
But simply claiming that racist caricature was an inevitable part of Southern culture is overlooking the thousands of people of color, legislators and activists who knew it was wrong.
Ivey donned blackface four years after four girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, and she made this decision two years after marchers were beaten by police on a bridge in Selma. Performing in blackface wasn’t some kind of nationally recognized pastime in America in the 1960s. It wasn’t “a stupid thing we did.” It was an intentionally racist and demeaning act performed in willful defiance of black Americans’ centuries-long struggle for legal and social equality.
The overall message from the University’s administration and the governor’s excusers is that these actions took place over 50 years ago, and the state has “come a long way.”
But having come a long way doesn’t mean accepting the people who took an active part in the continuation of racist caricature and systemic oppression.
Coming a long way shouldn’t be to excuse someone who commited or tolerated the villainous and intentional belittling of people of color.
Coming a long way means elevating the people who fought against that oppression.
Coming a long way means condemning the governor who publicly mocked black people and instead, electing someone who didn’t.
Even if Ivey’s racist actions do just make her a “product of her time,” that’s not an excuse for her to continue to be reelected for the highest office in Alabama. This isn’t “her time” anymore.
Of course, the real shame is that last week’s revelations have mostly blown over by now.
Anyone aware of Alabama’s political reality knows that Ivey will not resign over this.
Why would she?
This is the state that elected George Wallace as governor three times.
This is the state that learned Roy Moore is an alleged sexual predator and then nearly elected him to the U.S. Senate.
This is the state that has had half of its governors in the last two decades resign amidst corruption scandals.
It’s shameful how low the bar has been set for Alabama, and it’s embarrassing that people still manage to trip over it.
The governor wore blackface and implied that African Americans are stupid and inferior.
She did it at a time when people of color were being beaten and killed for daring to believe they deserved equality.
The University didn’t condemn her then, and they haven’t condemned her now.
Alabama hasn’t come a long way, and Auburn will always love its traditions.
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